This thoroughly engaging documentary, charts the meteoric rise and fall of the inimitable New York painter with rock-star status and one of the leading lights of late-20th-century art. The film is centered on a rare interview that director and friend Tamra Davis shot with Basquiat over twenty years ago. Much can be gleaned from insider interviews and archival footage, but it is Basquiat's own words and work that powerfully convey the mystique and allure of both the artist and the man.

In his short career, Jean-Michel Basquiat was a phenomenon. In the late 1970s, he covers the city with the graffiti tag SAMO. In 1981, he puts paint on canvas for the first time, and sells his first piece to Deborah Harry for $200. By 1983, the selling price is more than a million. Tragically, heroin addiction kills Basquiat in 1988, at age 27 at the height of his career. His dense, bebop-influenced neoexpressionist work emerged while minimalist, conceptual art was the fad. As a successful black artist, he was constantly confronted by racism and misconceptions; his cult status eventually overrode the art that had made him famous in the first place. 

Featuring interviews with Julian Schnabel, Larry Gagosian, Bruno Bischofberger, Tony Shafrazi, Fab 5 Freddy, Jeffrey Deitch, Glenn O'Brien, Maripol, Kai Eric, Nicholas Taylor, Fred Hoffmann, Michael Holman, Diego Cortez, Annina Nosei, Suzanne Mallouk, Rene Ricard, among many others.

In 1983 I was working at an art gallery in Los Angeles and going to film school at LA City College. At that time Jean-Michel Basquiat was a young painter and was visiting LA for his first show at the Larry Gagosian Gallery. He came to the gallery to visit our mutual friend, whom I worked with, and we immediately bonded over our love of cinema. 

I started filming him painting for his show at Larry’s, and whenever he would come to Los Angeles, I would film him while we were hanging out. In 1985, when he was 25 and quite successful, I shot a lengthy interview with him. Our mutual friend Becky Johnston asked the questions.

Less than two years later he died. I took all my footage and put it away in drawer. I knew that one thing that made Jean-Michel very upset was when his friends sold work he had given them. I didn’t want him to think, even in death, that I was one of his friends who would sell his work for profit. 

Twenty years later I was on a walk with a friend who was working on a great retrospective of Basquiat at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA). When I told her about my footage, she asked to see it so I screened the 20-minute film I had cut. To everyone’s astonishment it became clear that the footage I possessed was a rare glimpse into, and a very intimate portrait of, one of America’s most important artists. 

I knew then that my footage no longer belonged in my drawer. It was important for Jean-Michel’s voice to be heard and for the real story of what happened to be told.

I screened the short film at the Sundance Film Festival in 2006 and met David Koh of Arthouse Films, who asked me if I could make the short into a feature.

Since then I’ve been on an incredible journey to interview those who were close to Jean-Michel and search for archival footage from a fantastic time in New York – the 1980’s. With my original footage, these new interviews and a ton of archival footage, I constructed a film that is both documentary and a moving narrative. 

The film is a very personal and intimate portrayal of an artist and my friend. I am so grateful to all the people who’ve helped me create an in-depth study of his life. He was an incredible artist who lived life to the fullest, died too young, and left an amazing body of work behind.


"For anyone who saw BASQUIAT, Julian Schnabel’s affectionate drama about his colleague, this documentary serves as an essential companion piece. One of the real pleasures of the documentary is that Basquiat’s prolific work is presented in such kaleidoscopic abundance. The film also delves into the artist’s craving for success, his ambitious rivalry with Schnabel, and his father-figure romance with Warhol — while doing justice to his fiercely independent spirit. What emerges is the portrait of a wild child with a deceptive sophistication. As one friend and critic put it, Basquiat’s paintings “were deliberate enigmas. . . They said, get with it! See the complexity of our culture. I’ll give you a few hints.”

"Jean-Michel Basquiat’s rise in the 1980s is a well-known moon shot from street artist to the heights of art-world fame."

"But as filmmaker and friend Tamra Davis shows in her new documentary JEAN-MICHEL BASQUIAT: THE RADIANT CHILD – opening in Toronto on Thursday – it wasn’t quite a straight ascent: The painter’s spectacular, short-lived career went through a series of distinct stages before he hit the big time – and an early death of a drug overdose at age 27 in 1988."

"Tamra Davis’s documentary does serve as a worthy companion to Julian Schnabel’s 1996 biopic."

"Basquiat’s short life makes a compelling story whether told in doc form or in the 1996 biopic by rival Julian Schnabel (who also appears here). It’s easy to see why the charismatic and handsome young graffiti poet was so sure he would be famous. Fascinating footage shows how Basquiat worked ferociously on many paintings at once as TV and music blared and parties raged in his studio."

"'The same crazy dream' — Basquiat doc is a time capsule of New York in the 1980s."

"Tamra Davis’s new documentary does what Nuit Blanche couldn’t: It showcases the raw, complex world of modern art without compromising anyone’s integrity. By chronicling Jean-Michel Basquiat’s scruffy beginnings, extravagant middle and ugly end, Davis creates both a love letter to the painter and a cautionary tale of artistic excess."

"Born into a well-off family with a domineering father, the genius child showed extraordinary promise from age 4. By his early 20s his good looks, quick wits and extraordinary artistic élan were already familiar to rich patrons and the culturally influential although some began to desert him well before his early death."